You have accomplished something awesome by being here together this evening.1 Erev Yom Kippur. Kol Nidrei. You have entered this sanctuary to observe the holiest day of the year. What do you find here? The beginning of a long fast. Melodies you recall from childhood. Familiar prayers heard only once in a year seeking to pry open an inner consciousness, for you to turn inward and probe. It is a day of memories: of people and places.

Tradition seeks for you to recall deeds one would rather forget. Mistakes made this past year. Words that were better left unsaid. Moments of terror when your soul sought for you to stand, but your body was unwilling. For many, tonight begins our Jewish day of high anxiety.

As I look back on almost six decades of Yom Kippurs, and Kol Nidrei in particular, the sanctuary was darker than it usually was for other services. Yes, that is correct. In the many synagogues my family belonged to in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Albany, and Washington, D.C. the sanctuary was darkened on the eve of Yom Kippur. It was much brighter on Rosh Hashanah, the day beginning the New Year, filled with hope and forgiveness. But on this very evening, every year, the room was slightly dimmer; or so I imagined.

The midrash2 speaks of a great court convened in heaven on this very night, where Jews everywhere are called to be judged. Satan acts as the prosecuting attorney. He points out every fault, every transgression, every mistake each of you made this year. When Satan finishes his opening remarks and accusations, God arises from the throne of Mercy and cites every accomplishment, every just deed, every mitzvah fulfilled by every Jew, as your defense attorney. And then, as the scales of judgment are weighed, sins placed in one pan of the scale and just deeds on the other, they come out perfectly balanced. “No problem,” Satan says. “Wherever there are Jews there are sure to be sins,” and goes to fetch more transgressions to put in the pan of iniquities and force it lower. But while he is gone, God takes the evil deeds and sins out of the pan and hides them under his robe. When Satan returns, he is dumbfounded to find there are no crimes on the scale.

What a scene. God not only pleads on our behalf but withholds evidence that surely would convict us all. Perhaps I was wrong about this evening. I felt I sat alone on Kol Nidrei. It did not matter that I was sitting next to my parents or my sisters and brother. I was by myself. The failures we will recite tomorrow morning were mine alone: passing judgment, not being attentive, the sin of silence and indifference, withholding love, controlling those whom I love: Every year on Yom Kippur, my soul was darkened by these crimes. And, I was alone.

For that reason, the beginning of Yom Kippur was darker for me. We are told that the Gates of Heaven are open for our prayers and our contrition to rise to the angelic heights. So far away. God is so far away.

But this story. This legend, that God is not only close, but is my ally. I should have realized this! By tradition, during the month of Elul we are to read every morning, “Your face God, will I seek … You have been my help; … O God of my salvation … God will pick me up … Wait for the Eternal; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait you for God” (Psalm 27). None of you are alone tonight. You have an ally, a powerful Friend in court who not only files amicus briefs on your behalf, but breaks a few rules for your benefit as well. Perhaps Yom Kippur is not as dark as I once thought.
Instead of retreating into your memory, trying to recall the misdeeds you have already forgotten about, and your family and friends have forgiven, remember instead for what purpose are you here.

Baseball!

My friends, the playoffs and World Series are always closely tied to the High Holy Days. You might be amused that Yom Kippur and baseball have so much in common. The late historian Bruce Catton, once said of baseball, it is “a pageant and a ritualized drama.” Yom Kippur is certainly that. Baseball teaches us to never give up in life: Everyone knows that if you fail seven times out of ten to get on base with a hit—walks and struck-batsmen don’t count, nor do sacrifices (bunt or fly)—if you do that, you are a potential Hall-of-Fame hitter. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often—those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. For decades, you have heard from this pulpit that an error in life is “missing the mark.” Take better aim and do better next time.

But to me, it was something that happened thirty years ago this past August where the message of baseball and Yom Kippur deliver the proper message for us this evening.

The late Bart Giamatti, then Commissioner of Baseball reminded Pete Rose and us what the next 24 hours are all about. Pete Rose said he did not violate Rule 21: “Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.” Commissioner Giamatti said Pete Rose did violate Rule 21. The Commissioner then preached a Yom Kippur sermon:

“If one is responsible for protecting the integrity of the game of baseball—that is, the game’s authenticity, honesty and coherence—then the process one uses to protect the integrity of baseball must itself embody that integrity … I believe baseball is an important, enduring American institution. It must assert and aspire to the highest principles—of integrity, of professionalism, of performance, of fair play within its rules. It will come as no surprise that like any institution composed of human beings, this institution will not always fulfill its highest aspirations. I know of no earthly institution that does. But this one, because it is so much a part of our history as a people and because it has such a purchase on our national soul, has an obligation to the people for whom it is played—to its fans and well-wishers—to strive for excellence in all things and to promote the highest ideals.”

He concluded with, “I will be told that I am an idealist. I hope so.”3

That is it. That is what this night asks of each of us; to strive for excellence and to be an idealist. Like baseball, it is not about the perfect game. That of course is unexpected and a miracle. We make mistakes along the way. And certainly, if you hit the ball for a base more than 30 percent of the time, you are an all-star. To play on a team for any length of time, you have to be better than average. Baseball and Yom Kippur ask you to rise above the average, the everyday, and desire to be more today and tomorrow.

Kirk Douglas in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, tells of a drive to Palm Springs. He offered a lift to a young sailor who was hitchhiking. The young man got into the car and recognized the famous driver. In shock the young man called out, “Hey! Do you know who you are?”

That is the question tonight poses for each of you, “Do you know who you are?” Who are you really? And, to go one step further, when you look in the mirror, is that the person you want to represent to your family and to your community?

Our rabbis, in their wisdom, gave form and shape to our services this evening and tomorrow to raise these very questions. Through these prayers, God asks you, “Who are you really?” This question goes way back before the rabbis, all the way back to the Garden of Eden.

When God asked Adam in the Garden, “Where are you?,” naked and afraid, Adam was unable to answer. He did not know what it meant to be human. What are my goals? Do I have ambitions? What is my purpose? Generations passed. There was silence. Not one person answered that question raised in our paradise lost.

And then, Abraham answered, Hineini, “Here I am.” Alone, away from home, 4,000 years ago, he came to understand what it meant to be a moral person. Our destiny is for each of us to become a person, a n’shamah, emerging from the past all alone. Life is more than paying bills, being a good parent, neighbor, or friend. My friends, life is a moral quest. God’s covenant with Abraham was to look beyond the average; the mundane. In this covenant between humanity and the divine, Abraham and his progeny were taught that goodness was to rule over emotion. Cruelty must be substituted by kindness, deception replaced by truth, and exploitation is given up for sharing. In this way, God told Abraham that he would change the world. We learn from our father Abraham not to ask, “What do I get out of my life?” Rather, “What should I want from my life?”

Life is not entirely about your possessions, success at work, or being able to brag about your grandchildren. Where does peace of mind fit in? What about good health, quality time, work-life balance, and new beginnings? To make those more a part of your lives, you need to discover how to lift the ordinary to the holy. That means you have to change your pattern. That requires work.

A few months ago, I visited a congregant in the hospital. He was dying. For the first time in over thirty years of being a rabbi, I was asked the correct question: “Was I a good person?” That is the question for the night! That is what God commanded Abraham, “Be a blessing. Be a good person.” It is not about being the father of a great nation. It was not about having great wealth. The material can be taken away at any time. History has proven that. What cannot be taken is your soul. From that moment, Abraham knew what he must do. But, how did he know?

Abraham did not have the assurances of Moses. Moses, God’s “servant”, saw God free the Israelites. He saw the ten plagues rain down on the Egyptians. He saw God split the sea. All these miracles were pretty impressive, I imagine. Abraham had none of that. No miracles. No deliverance. He witnessed nothing. All Abraham had was a promise and a hope, that by adhering to God’s ways and embodying Jewish virtues that the world would be better off for it.4

Many of us tonight may not be sure that God has earned our obedience. We know too much about ourselves and too little about God to be comfortable stating that. Abraham, too, did not know much about God. Yet he changed his life, not because of a great sermon, nor because of a miracle he witnessed. He changed his life because he heard a voice summoning him to be authentic and honest. He was called to live with integrity and play by the rules and strive for excellence.

On Yom Kippur, God outwits Satan on our behalf. The verdict of not guilty is not enough. There are two things we must do: 1) Not live in the past, nor be satisfied with who we were. And 2) this very night, we demand of ourselves to be idealists and to play this game of life with integrity and honor.

Tonight, in the dimness of this sanctuary, you do not sit alone. A voice calls out to you, “Do you know who you are? And, Where are you going?”

We are imperfect beings. We live in an imperfect universe. We are at times weak and afraid. We struggle to carry ourselves with dignity. Let the words you hear tonight and tomorrow enchant and uplift you. Lift up your eyes and see that there is potential greatness waiting in your life.

Let the words spoken thirty years ago inspire you: “strive for excellence in all things and … promote the highest ideals.”
And, as Commissioner Giamatti concluded, “I will be told that I am an idealist. I hope so.”

May each of you be an idealist this year.

“I hope so.”


[1] Major themes and lines of this sermon came from Rabbi Matt Simon’s Kol Nidrei sermon delivered on September 21, 1989. Conservative rabbi from Silver Spring, Virginia and long-time friend of our family.
[2] Retold from Rabbi Ragin’s YK sermon, October 2, 1987.
[3] Press Conference on August 24, 1989.
[4] Wonderful comparison of these biblical figures by Rabbi Simon.